Suffragette : A Film Review

Directed by Sarah Gavron Written by Ali Morgan, Cast. Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Glesson, Anna Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep, Sam West, Romola Garai, Finbar Lynch and as the son of Maud and Sonny, Adam Michael Dodd.
Cert. 12a. General release, 106 mins.

It took a long time for the struggle of the Suffragettes to make any inroads on equality and the right to vote. It was as Emily Pankhurst played by Meryl Streep in little more than a cameo role, says at on point in the film 50 years to the period the film is set. Gone is Queen Victoria and in comes with the new century 1901-1910 – Edward VII House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and 1910-1936 George V House of Windsor. Even then it spans the two monarchs before full rights are obtained in 1925.
The struggle therefore of women was immense and when equality remains an issue across the world along with conditions of employment and minimum wage manipulation for the workforce we can say the struggle continues.

Film making and performance.
This is a film constructed around a principal focus. A family backdrop.
The employment in the East end of Maud Watts played by the very youthful looking Carey Mulligan.
She takes the role exceptionally well with dry cynicism, stoic resolution and calm reflection on her own experiences while married to fellow laundry worker Ben Whishaw whose role is a pit of vagueness and ignorance compared to Mauds. She short life has been little else other than servitude and the awakening is in the beginning full of concern for her boy and her fragile position as basically slave to the working environment.

Quickly the range of the film is established as the surveillance of Suffragettes enters under the Home Office Minister Benedict Haughton played superbly by Sam West; his wife Alice played by Romola Garai is one of the key agitators and is in my opinion one of the best performances of the film alongside Mr Ellen played by Fingal Lynch giving a contrast of actorial and character representation which sadly was lacking in spades in the rest of the parts. Helen Bonham-Carter is represented by whatever her eyebrows, cheekbones, feel like at the time. Her likeness to David Cameron is striking. Chief of the Special branch Brendan Glesson as Inspector Arthur Steed is neither one thing or the other and under performs as only he can do. Hardly an emotion other than ‘what did you expect’ passes his static facial grimace.
Grim times
The grime of London is clear and there is a contrast of the formal dignified appearance of the better off locations well captured by the cinematography around the town but the ‘action’ scenes are frenetically choppy including the rawness of the denouement of the chosen climax.
It is difficult to represent the period with large numbers but it is only a minor flaw and wisely there is use of Pathe footage of the milestone moment at the end. For certain tastes this film is not sufficiently graphic but when no one has tackled the themes or come close to depicting the reality of the times, only some individual dramas have the essence of the period on film, it is very useful in bringing attention to this milestone for women’s equality. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth recently seen on film, partly told of political participation in life and the intervention of War which itself represented undemocratic choice, told possibly the power of newspaper as public propaganda over a considerable time. Nothing changes in that regard despite the volume of social media.
Voting with your feet
Uprisings begin from the bottom up and this dramatic account of the Suffragette movements mobilisation to attain Votes for Women is a laudable attempt at filling in an otherwise neglected period of societal change.

Wars and economics along with politics dominated almost exclusively by males are the hegemony of the battle accounts we are familiar with.

This film nevertheless is a staid and stiff whalebone corset of a movie given no features of women of other races who were also prominent East end activists of the cause are portrayed. Even references to slavery are set aside or dampened for the American viewer when it plays to those audiences in pursuit of Academy recognition.

Centrally we have a great performance from the cast however with principal protagonist Maud Watts played blazingly by Carey Mulligan. For fire is everywhere in the energy of driven intent. Nothing will be done to stop this uprising. Hence the name highlighting sufferage.
When this period was alive the campaign related to a working class population of some 70% working class.
The Proli
From another source very recently I discovered the meaning of proletarian arises from the word proli which refers to women.

I think it relates to proliferation. The production fecundity of women as able to miraculously bear children! I am petrified in case I offend! So elucidate any observations you have please!

In essence the women were regarded in the definition as the source of the working population. In order for a state of capital to survive it had to have produced the proletariate. Eager to place a class upon the enterprise they then centrally became a middle class bourgeoise which is French in its classification or origin. The imposition of middle class values was a mechanism for the well of to maintain separation and control over the masses despite their obviously being in the minority.

the bourgeois class.
(in Marxist theory) the class that, in contrast to the proletariat or wage-earning class, is primarily concerned with property values.
Into this arena again ignored by the film was one Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour movement and because he was such a bad parliamentarian and was much better out on the stump and traveling all over the United Kingdom explaining Socialist Labour he naturally became conscious of the women’s movement.

Again little is said in this film of Keir Hardies relationship, because in essence it was alive, with Emmiline Pankhursts sister Sylvia that he was a central agitator and strategist for her and their campaign. Along with The other sister Christabel was a less physical protagonist depending on her brain and intellect perhaps of a wider problem. Class.

Instead of the wider contexts I explain above the film depends largely on a narrow band and triumvirate of women in the three cast members of Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Marie Duff.

The middle class connotations are explicit in the foreground of the central characters but Maud is the one who is cast to convey the apparatus under which working class women endure work as a means to live.

Shop floors are not exactly the sole place of women’s employment as service and subservience, exploitation existed on many fronts and collectively greater than any shop floor, factory etc.
2015 you will notice is a time when the global phenomenon of Secular Stagnation is evident as a factor of numerous economies as the failures of capital to produce a stability in living conditions as growth is sporadic and incalculable. Forecasting economics and using industry is as in the early twentieth century was a contest of ideology.

Economic credibility
Secular stagnation was a spur to growth and exploitation in the early twenties and the conditions for labour and wages was intense.
Remarkably the class system was rooted in the United Kingdom by an failing alliance with Victorian values as assigned by the monolith of Monarchy.
It is extraordinary that this was overlooked by the suffragettes but due to its lack of political nous. Instead it faced off masculinity instead of monarchy. The ruling class having no disposition for sex or predication for leaderships as long as they maintained the separator ion of wealth accumulation and control over costs prices and taxation.

This film is like a cleansed BBC Series introduction aligned with the apatite for Downton Abbey. Similarly extrordinary. It avoids most concerningly the absolute dismal and short lived ordinary lives of the vast majority of people under the severe oppression of their existence.
Education, Church and Political controls all mitigated to underpin the State and afflict it’s burden on people. The immorality of this is starkly and naively absent from the true depiction of this struggle. It was as Kier Hardy was aware tied into companion journeys of workers rights and conditions.

The Victorian era had died in 1901.
Here was a time of seismic change.

The record
From Brittanica this reference comes.
In 1908–09 Pankhurst was jailed three times, once for issuing a leaflet calling on the people to “rush the House of Commons.” A truce that she declared in 1910 was broken when the government blocked a “conciliation” bill on woman suffrage.
From July 1912 the WSPU turned to extreme militancy, mainly in the form of arson directed by Christabel from Paris, where she had gone to avoid arrest for conspiracy. Pankhurst herself was imprisoned, and, under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act of 1913 (the “Cat and Mouse Act”), by which hunger-striking prisoners could be freed for a time and then reincarcerated upon regaining their health to some extent, she was released and rearrested 12 times within a year, serving a total of about 30 days. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, she and Christabel called off the suffrage campaign, and the government released all suffragist prisoners.

It was not until much later her goal would be achieved. In 1918, women over the age of 30 finally won the vote.

It should have been a moment of triumph for the Pankhursts – but it was tainted by the estrangement between Christabel, who was becoming increasingly right-wing and Sylvia, who remained true to her father’s ideals of pacifism and socialism.
The Representation of the People Act of 1928, establishing voting equality for men and women, was passed a few weeks before her death.

The Liberal Pankhursts had five children – three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, and two sons – Frank, who died young, and Harry, the youngest, born in 1889. Though Sylvia adored her father, both her parents were preoccupied with politics and family life was distinctly austere.

Political agitation was Emmeline’s real love. ‘This is what I call life!’ she remarked to Sylvia in 1905, planning her retaliation as the first women’s Franchise Bill was talked out in Parliament.
Sylvia was characteristically shocked. In her mind, social reform wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. As the struggle for women’s suffrage began to involve more violent and extreme demonstrations, a rift opened between Sylvia and her mother and elder sister.

Emmeline, and particularly Christabel, were keen on showy violence. Christabel was seldom in the thick of the action herself.
She argued that she couldn’t be an effective leader from prison, and at one stage fled to Paris in a series of dramatic disguises, which delighted the Press.
But she saw violence as an effective campaigning method, and was particularly keen on arson – she once sent Sylvia a note demanding that she burn down Nottingham Castle.
Perhaps this story is next because the Sylvia story is also an account of Socialist warfare and she corresponds with Lenin and removes herself to assist the Ethiopian dilemma of self governance when she provided support for the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, who was forced to seek refuge in Britain after his country was invaded by Italian Fascist troops in 1936.
Conclusion. ### 3
This is a good introduction to the Suffragette struggle an though confined to delivering a very important movements milestones through a small family micro narrative is sufficiently broad to see the extremities of the opposition, the protagonists for the vote and the upsurge of labour consciousness as to be believable and therefore worthy conveyance as a film, it only is a soft sanitized version.

Nevertheless it holds up for being no more than a dramatic account and shapes as a general aperture to many unfamiliar with certain aspects of the Suffragettes and the conditionsrevailing in this recently industrialised country before the onset of war.

John Graham

14 October 2015


On at QFT Belfast from Friday 16th October until 29th October and on general release from 12th